Fluidity in Focus

This essay was written by Christopher Chippendale 
on the occasion of his exhibit at Soprafina Gallery, December 2011

Je ne puis pas distinguer entre le sentiment que j'ai de la vie et la façon dont je le traduis.*
—Henri Matisse (1908)

*I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have about life and the way I translate it. 

Through their medium artists reconstitute and give permanent form to nature’s evanescence, to its very authenticity. Painting…is nature’s paradox: it gives form to that which, in its essence, is beyond permanence. … To accomplish this feat…is a painstaking task. … [It] requires going beyond convention, beyond training, beyond culture, back beyond language, to a state of naïve yet sustained scrutiny and inquiry...[to a] world of forgetting.
—Joel Isaacson (1994)

The paintings in this exhibit aim to translate the fugitive conditions of light and color as discovered through the act of painting. They result directly from my desire to find and reveal through the material language of paint that which is essential in what I see. As such, they extend a modernist tradition of perceptual inquiry and representation based upon the raw data of sight, an interpretation of appearances directly apprehended and reconstructed on the canvas in a preform of color patches, unmitigated by any predetermining identification of what those color patches represent.

This way of seeing and of making paintings traces its formal genesis to the Impressionists, through whose expressed aims and practices it gained its first “modern” foothold. As Monet said, famously: “Try to forget what objects you have before you — a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, ‘here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow’, and paint it just as it appears, the exact color and shape.” 

As simple and schematic as Monet’s advice may sound today, his charge to “forget what you know,” to engage directly with visual sensations, and to translate those sensations to the canvas using an exacting “parallel” language of relational color patches, echoes through the work of a number of prominent twentieth-century painters (Cezanne, Vuillard, Edwin Dickinson, Fairfield Porter). The substance of Monet’s advice continues to resonate through the practices of some important painters working today, including those of my foremost teacher, George Nick, with whom I studied in the late 1980’s.

This way of painting is rooted in the immediacy of perception rather than in what the artist knows about his subject a priori. It is an approach to painting based in finding rather than in making, in perception rather than in preconception, and it can lead to an engagement with fundamental questions about perception itself, its representation, and the “true” or rightful expression of what one sees. What one sees, however, is — like the images in Plato’s Cave — an ever questionable proposition.

Being a perceptual painter means that I accept as a condition of painting that appearances are fundamentally unstable and relational, that “reality” is vulnerable to distortion both from without as well as from within. The flow of time itself, as measured by the changing conditions of light and color in a given motif before me, alters unceasingly the arrangements of sensations that present themselves at any given instant. So, too, do my perceptions of these things change from moment to moment. The paradox of an approach to painting that is wedded to a poetry of the present moment is that the present moment is always changing. How my paintings appear, as well as how they are made, arises largely from my experience working with these fluid, changeable circumstances, and striving to draw into focus the forms I pull out from such liquid conditions.